The genre- and language-blending singer discusses “Indian-ness,” making music in the land of cultural chameleons, and says she may never be hip in the U.S. But her songs might be the most eloquent response yet to the likes of Joe “You Lie” Wilson.
At the end of the song “La Martiniana,” Mexican-American singer Lila Downs belts out the word “vivo” for nearly ten seconds. It can be uncomfortable to listen to, a virtuosity one can easily pair with turning blue in the face and passing out. But there’s also something about such intense emotion that makes a listener, particularly a northern one, want to turn away; like many of her songs, “La Martiniana” is a heavy song about grief and loss. If you ask Downs, this is a side of Mexican culture too often dismissed or derided even within Mexico, what she describes as Mexico’s “Indian-ness,” which includes a “childlike” confrontation with emotions. It comes from a grief about colonization and a profound, almost preternatural sense of solitude, says Downs. “Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition,” wrote the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. By denying one part of their identity, that of the indigenous, Paz opined, Mexicans become stuck in a world of solitude. Through her music, Downs has tapped into this same insight. Yet there was a point in the Grammy and Oscar-nominated singer’s life when she was guilty of this very denial; she dyed her hair blond and identified almost exclusively with her father’s Anglo roots. No longer.
Downs is the daughter of a Mixtec-Mexican mother, Anita Sanchez, who ran a car parts store in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and an Anglo-American academic, Allen Downs. (The two met when Downs came to Mexico to do a film about a duck called the blue-winged teal, heard Sanchez singing in a nightclub, and fell in love.) Lila spent her youth shuttling between Oaxaca and California—and later Minnesota; she studied the anthropology of music at the University of Minnesota after spending her girlhood singing at weddings, baptisms, and eventually clubs, “a lowlife tradition” that her mother frowned upon. As with her parents’, her partnership with American saxophonist Paul Cohen, who has since become her husband and songwriting partner, began with a northern traveler getting stuck, as it were—in this case from a mechanical breakdown. As Cohen told an interviewer, “I met Lila because I had a clogged carburetor one day and my car stalled out in front of her mother’s store. And she was singing in the background.” (Apparently there is something of the siren in the Sanchez women.)
This summer, The Very Best of el Alma de Lila Downs, her ninth collaboration with Cohen, appeared in the U.S., bringing together fifteen years of eclectic and virtuosic songs. Milestones along the way include three songs in the Salma Hayek movie Frida; along with a small acting role in the film, Downs also sang at the 2002 Oscars with legendary Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso. (They sang “Burn it Blue,” nominated that year for Best Song.) This year, Downs was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album for her 2008 Shake Away. And last month, Shake Away came in sixth on the 2009 World Music Chart’s Top Ten list; Downs was the only Latina on the list.
Listening to Downs is a journey through Mexican folklore and culture, but also jazz. She sings not just in Spanish, English, Portuguese, and French, but also Mixtec, Nauhatl, Mayan, and Zapotec. She draws on the many forms of Mexican popular music, rancheras and corridos, as well as on the Mixtec codices, a group of pre-Columbian texts that document the region’s creation myths and deities. But mostly listening to Downs is to confront an intense and cathartic outpouring of emotions, especially grief. She tries to change that with Shake Away, as in shaking off grief and despair. The songs are a way “to try and heal and be in a more positive space, since sometimes alcohol will take you into a darker one.”
I spoke with Downs by phone; she was at her home in New York City.
—Joel Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: How old were you when you started singing?
Lila Downs: According to my ma, I was around five. I started imitating singers I would hear in the house. My mother listened to ranchero music; my father loved it, as well. And opera was a big thing, too, and jazz. So I had those influences and started performing when I was around eleven at parties in my little village, and word spread about my singing. So they would invite me to weddings and baptisms and those kinds of things.
Guernica: What was your childhood like?
Lila Downs: I was privileged because I had on the one hand my mother’s family who was very Indian and part of what we call “the profound heart of Mexico;” and on the other hand my father who was a university professor, who was really my friend as I was growing up. He taught me a really beautiful outlook on looking for truth and, through art, expressing what your soul needs to say. I was a country girl. I grew up in a little village, but going back and forth, to Minneapolis. So I also had that urban side in my youth, as well.
Guernica: What else did you like to do when you were a girl?
Lila Downs: I loved the rituals in my village, which were about taking the little Santito, the little saints from my village, and walking around. Just really partaking in the traditions of what we call in Oaxaca “communality,” which is the village participation of everyone; you give and receive. It’s very natural for children to love that because it’s about being with all kinds of people all the time, and of course playing around, and that’s great for kids to be free that way.
Guernica: One of the singers you were imitating, I understand, was your mother.
Lila Downs: Well, my mother used to sing and my father did a few movies where her voice [was used], and she is singing in those films. So I think that was my first impression, through her, of how fun it was to sing rancheras; it seemed really beautiful to me.
Guernica: Tell me about rancheras. Do they come from all around Mexico?
Lila Downs: They do come from all over; of course, in different variations. It can be divided into different categories, like corridos, which are a more narrative type of song, and there’s the ballads which are sometimes in four or in six, depending on the region; and of course the center of Mexico was very important in the development of the music; Guadalajara, Jalisco, I would say, is kind of the mother of this more nationalistic genre. And even though it’s nationalistic, it does have elements that are uniquely about our ethnicity and have elements that are native, the metaphors especially. Sometimes we cut it down in Mexico because it’s popular music; we sometimes forget the elements that compose it.
Guernica: I read that your mom sang in bars and didn’t approve of your doing that. Why did she disapprove?
Lila Downs: She was singing in a time when it wasn’t looked on very positively to be a public woman; times are very different. Especially in Latin America, it wasn’t appropriate for a young woman to be out—I mean, obviously tons of women always are out and about drinking and having a good time. She was concerned about me falling for some lowlife tradition, and she didn’t want that for me.
Guernica: But I’m sure she’s extremely proud of your success.
Lila Downs: Well, now she is. It took a while. (laughs) She was always concerned that I be taken seriously, and that actually made me who I am, as well. I look at myself in my younger years and I think, “Wow, I was pretty serious.” I think it was a need to be considered a thinking individual and not so much as a “woman.” A lot of times I think women use our seduction to communicate the things that we want to communicate; some of us do it just by nature. But for me that wasn’t the case.
Guernica: I read that your mother didn’t speak Mixteca to you because of shame.
Lila Downs: Yeah, that’s I think a well known story in many Indian families because it’s kind of [seen] how Spanish is in the U.S. to some families. The parents come here first generation. They don’t think [speaking Spanish is] conducive to their future because it’s frowned upon in some cultural contexts. I think less so now than in the past. And so in Mexico, of course, the national language is Spanish and also there’s a lot of discrimination towards Native American groups in Mexico, and a lot of ignorance about the longevity and the beauty of these traditions.
Guernica: And you said that even as a girl, you identified more with your father’s Anglo background, and I think you bleached your hair?
Lila Downs: I did, yeah. When I was an opera singer—I studied opera in college—I was trying to fit into the European context, and in Minnesota, I thought, most people are blond. So I really felt like I needed to fit in, and I guess those are things that you need to work through. That’s why I ended up dropping out later on, because I really felt like I wasn’t being who I needed to be.
Guernica: Is this when you were following around the Grateful Dead and living on the streets?
Lila Downs: Yeah.
Guernica: It sounds like you were between your two cultural identities. It’s really impressive how much you’ve come to identify with the culture you at first shied away from.
Lila Downs: Yeah, I think dropping out is a very important thing for some of us because… My life had been so ordered, being a musician; music is muy celosa, as we say in Spanish; it’s very demanding for every minute of the day. And so I think I was just fed up with that and needed to experience life in other ways and discover more about the historical context that I was coming from, especially because I felt a lot of anger about the racism that I was feeling in different contexts culturally. And music certainly has helped me continue to figure that one out and at least to discuss these issues in song and find a place where I’m more comfortable with myself, as well.
Guernica: Tell me a little about the Mixtec codices.
After ten years of singing “La Llorona,” it has taught me about how spiritual music can be. “La Martiniana” is a song about the force of music never dying. I feel like I am a conduit of deeper meaning when I sing these songs.
Lila Downs: These are pre-Columbian native documents; some of the few which have survived depict stories of the king-slash-supernatural beings, and [the beings’] identification with these religious manifestations, like the plumed serpent. There are these different gods that are correspondent with people who actually lived [who were] rulers of the native community, the Mixtec and Zapotec. I found that it was very important for me to write some songs about these characters because then I could feel more pride in my ethnicity and also have some of these songs played in the local Mixtec radio station up in my region, and my paisanos would listen and feel proud about who they are. Because many of them come to the U.S. and work and, of course, are discriminated against a lot in the context of the work they do.
Guernica: You spoke in one interview about Mexican melancholy, the “constant tragic sense in Mexican souls.” You said that it comes from “mourning a time before the Europeans came.” I’m interested in your sense of how that idea—a whole culture in mourning—fits with your swinging back from this shame in your Native and Hispanic culture to pride.
Lila Downs: In a way, it’s very childlike if you feel the need to cry, to just cry. Of course, there’s the Spanish side [in Mexico] that makes fun of this, of our Indian-ness. But I think the Indian vision is really to be truthful about emotion. I think it’s a healthier outlook on life and nature. I think these songs are there for a very healthy reason. I think that [in them] I found, and find, great support, where I can relieve my angst and my doubts and my fears.
Guernica: That reminds me. Tell me a little bit about “La Llorona” and “La Martiniana.” “La Llorona” refers to the Mexican legend about the grieving woman who’s lost her children. And in “La Martiana,” you sing, “Little girl, when I die, don’t cry over my grave. Don’t cry for me, because if you cry, it’ll shame me. But, if you sing to me, I’ll live on and never die.”
Lila Downs: Both of these songs are sung in Oaxaca at baptisms, weddings, and rites of passage. “La Llorona” is about a sacred female death or a deity. After ten years of singing “La Llorona” in concerts and clubs, it has taught me about how spiritual music can be. “La Martiniana” is a song about singing and the force of music never dying. I feel like I am just a conduit of deeper meaning when I sing these songs.
Guernica: What do the lyrics say in the Mixtec parts of “Cancion Mixteca”?
Lila Downs: The Mixtec is a literal translation from the original song in Spanish composed by the Oaxacan Lopez Alavez [which goes something like “How far am I from the ground on which I was born; immense nostalgia invades my every thought. And on seeing myself so alone and sad like a leaf in the wind, I want to cry, I want to die, of sentimentality”].
Guernica: I was also really struck by how much joy in family and food and celebration and ritual comes through in songs like “La Cumbia del Mole,” which is on the new Best of CD, but also on La Cantina.
Lila Downs: When I wrote that song, I was just so nostalgic for Oaxaca; here in New York, where we live part of the time, we’re surrounded by a lot of Mexican paisanos who are from the state of Puebla. I thought, what is there that can unite us? And, of course, just the flavor and the idea of having mole is something that I miss so much here. So I started composing this song. And [it’s] also to the Virgin of Solitude, which is this beautiful little deity that in Oaxaca we believe in; she’s kind of like a little goddess that represents fertility; her celebration is in December when all the families are coming back home and there’s a lot of food, and so I wanted to put her in context in our native rituals. I also wanted to just make a metaphor for a woman called Solitude, because I think the word encompasses so many things about life and surviving and being alone.
Guernica: Tell me about your CD La Cantina; I read that you didn’t talk much about the emotion behind that CD at the time of its release, but later you realized you should, and you said that it came from your enormous sadness, your grief over the fact that you couldn’t bear children.
Lila Downs: I think that that album is mainly about crying, about something very painful, about not having what you want; I guess we all come across something like that in our life. At one point for me, it was about this. I’m not quite sure if I’ve resolved it completely. But I’m in a better place now. Working it out with the songs, of course, was wonderful for a few years. But then of course drinking a lot can also be a problem [laughs]. So that’s why the next album (Shake Away) was important as well, to try and heal and be in a more positive space, since sometimes alcohol will take you into a darker one.
Guernica: You said in one interview that the purpose of being a woman is to have children. Do you still feel that way?
Lila Downs: I imagine we have this need to procreate; no matter what our minds tell us, [no matter what] logical explanation for why maybe you can’t or you don’t have to, necessarily, it’s just this driving force that works on so many levels. I think there’s a way to figure this out. For me we’re thinking of [ways of] resolving it in a personal way. But artistically, it is amazing because you have to work it out somehow. It comes through in the music, and you just have to figure out a way where you just continue to fight for those things that you believe in saying, and of course as you get older, it gets more complicated; everything does.
I don’t think anyone should be in trouble for saying something that reaffirms your identity and gives you strength and makes you who you are.
Guernica: I understand that in addition to working it out in music, you also went to a traditional healer named Doña Queta. Tell me about that.
Lila Downs: She’s a healer in Oaxaca, respected at a national level, I would say. International as well, because she has developed a reputation. She started as a midwife and has also done consultations with hospitals in the U.S. She’s someone so knowledgeable of the herbs, and the native tradition of healing through herbs, and also a kind of psychologist, kind of a spiritualist woman, in the tradition of healers in Native America. To be with her and have a session is about talking with her about everything, and crying, and going through all kinds of emotions; she also did a sweat lodge up here in the North to cleanse, which is something that I think North Americans could probably benefit more from, since it’s such a widespread Native American tradition; I think it’s also very beautiful.
Guernica: It does seem like we’re in this moment where a lot of say eastern and Native traditions are increasingly coming together with so-called western medicine. And Sotomayor’s nomination and confirmation, and her statement about the “wise Latina,” hinted at some of this. I wonder what you thought of all that, if there’s something that Anglos and the North Americans need in Latin and Native cultures.
What does that mean when you become a chameleon and you’re able to cross over and speak in all these different styles and forms?
Lila Downs: Well, I don’t think anyone should be in trouble for saying something that reaffirms your identity and gives you strength and makes you who you are, and [especially if what you say] also shows that you are ready to face the world. I think it’s something to aspire to.
Guernica: Tell me about the relationship in your music between pride-in-self, and what pundits might call identity politics. Is there a distinction?
Lila Downs: I’m reading this book about the history of hip. And the U.S. is so based on image and, culturally, it has all these layers of meaning. I don’t think I can think of a place in the world that is as constantly changing; it’s what makes this country fascinating in the artistic sense. It also makes it fascinating politically, and to its core. What does it mean when you become a chameleon and you’re able to cross over and speak in all these different styles and forms? [Ours is] a time when maybe the Latino community, if we could possibly generalize, is not so hip. And I think that it happens in cycles; I don’t know if it comes as a backlash of the Puritan side of the U.S., this kind of moralistic element that comes up; somehow you can tune into it artistically, you can see what’s in and what isn’t in. I would say that it’s kind of the truthful heartbeat of what people sense in this country. Sometimes people are given the opportunity to express their identity and it’s seen as a very positive and empowering thing, and sometimes they are not. I think that it’s a shame. I guess we tend to discriminate against those people who empower us.
Guernica: Your partnership with Paul is something that animates all of this stuff that you’ve done musically.
Lila Downs: I’m very fortunate because we ran into each other musically.
Guernica: When his car broke down and he heard you singing?
Lila Downs: Yeah. And it’s not a coincidence. But we coincide with each other in so many ways. He makes me feel very peaceful. From within, which I think has been always a challenge for me to be peaceful about the things that I feel, that I sense, that I perceive. Sometimes, though, in married life… I don’t know. Are you married?
Lila Downs: When you’ve been together for such a long time, it’s like you kind of become a reflection of the other person, and so you have to figure out what is you and what isn’t you, and that’s sometimes a challenge. And it’s also beautiful because you say, “Well, these are the characteristics that I have adopted in a way that I love about my partner. But what can we do to make this keep working in a creative sense, [and] in a personal sense?”
Musically, we are in a very new environment right now, writing for musical theater, the Public Theater’s adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. And it’s very exciting to me, because Paul is coming up with all these melodies and harmonic ideas for the songs; it’s almost as if he’s tuning into this reservoir of great Jewish intellects in the city and connecting somehow with his ancestry. So it’s really wonderful to see that happen, and at the same time, I’m trying to figure out how we can make some of these songs meaningful in a cultural context. Somehow crossover as well so that people who are not Latino or Mexican American can truly relate to these songs and be, you know, with the times and be fun and make you wanna dance and make you wanna groove.
To contact Guernica or Lila Downs, please write here.
Photo by Elena Pardo